Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 26, 2012
Any good detective story focuses more on the detective than the story. If the detective, cop, private eye, what have you, is interesting then the plot will be interesting, while remaining oddly secondary to the characters. It’s how so many private dick yarns that tend towards the confusing side still work as entertainment. The most notable example is The Big Sleep and all its half-apocryphal accompanying stories and legends wherein the point isn’t whether the story makes sense or not, the point is whether you care. If you care, you’re probably paying attention to the wrong thing. You should be focusing on Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge. The story should only act to propel the characters along so we can watch them for longer periods of time. Robert Benton’s The Late Show understands this exactly and gives us one of the best of the genre and one of the best movies of the seventies.
The seventies saw a reinvention of detective fiction with three in particular, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Late Show, each taking a different route. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye sought to deconstruct the private eye, and noir, in one big California-Cool package. Chinatown presented it as a reinvention within the traditional outlines of the form and The Late Show presented it as is, set in the present day of 1977 with its lead private dick, Ira Wells, old and limping, hard of hearing but still able to wield a gun, talk tough and call every lady he meets “doll.”
The story of The Late Show begins when Ira’s landlady, Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson), knocks on his door (he rents a room in a boarding house) and announces he has a guest. Ira doesn’t hear the knock at first as he’s busy doing a crossword while the late show plays loudly in the background. When he does answer, he finds it’s his partner, Harry Regan (Howard Duff), who looks like he’s been out all night, prompting Ira to comment on the bender he’s apparently been on. That’s when blood starts pouring from his mouth and it becomes clear he’s been on no bender, he’s been shot. Ira lays him down, has Mrs. Schmidt call the police, and scolds Harry for letting himself get shot. Then, with only a few words, Ira says his goodbyes to his old partner in what has to be the most affecting opening scenes to any private dick movie ever. And it only works because the characters are older. Younger partners, like Spade and Archer, would have no such visible emotional attachment, but the emotion that barely seeps out from Ira indicates a long, hard-knock life that’s been through everything and probably just wishes that his partner could go in his sleep at a comfortable old age. Hell, he made it this long. Maybe Ira still will.
This is how the movie opens and immediately we have the setup used in so many detective/buddy movies before; the partner who gets killed and the partner left alive searching for justice. And, really, that’s how the story goes. It’s just that this time, the private dick is a lot older and a lot wiser. He knows when to take chances and when to pull back. When he’s approached at Harry’s funeral by an old friend he’s worked with off and on for sixteen years about a lady’s missing cat, he pulls back. The old friend is Charlie Hatter (the great Bill Macy) and the lady is Margo (Lily Tomlin) and her cat was taken by a man who’s threatening to kill it if Margo doesn’t give him back the money she stole from him which she says she only borrowed but which she got in the first place by selling hot goods across town that… and that’s where the “plot” starts becoming tangled. As with any good detective story, it gets a little confusing almost immediately. Charlie has ulterior motives, Margo just wants her cat back and Ira senses that all of this is somehow mixed up with his partner’s death (he’s right).
The plot only becomes more labyrinthine from there but the characters are sensational. Ira and Charlie have a relationship that time has enhanced by stripping away all the unnecessary clutter and leaving only that which is absolutely necessary. They speak to other in short expository sentences, leaving the BS at the door. Margo, on the other hand, blathers on about anything and everything and takes minutes to get to the point, often prompting Ira to turn to Charlie and ask him to give it to him straight, which he does, acting as a kind of stripped-down interpreter of Margo’s California lingo.
The characters that Ira encounters along the way obviously tend to the seedy side of things and the two who comprise the primary focus of his attention, Ron Birdwell and Lamar, his personal assistant (i.e. thug/henchman), are two of the slimiest characters in town. Birdwell sells stolen goods and Lamar beats up people for him while keeping up his reputation as a dedicated follower of fashion. Lamar is played by the ubiquitous John Considine perfectly, with a smugness so palpable the moment he first appears on the screen, he’s insufferable. Birdwell is played by Eugene Roche and if you don’t recognize that name, check out his IMDB page here. You’ll immediately recognize the face. Roche never got the awards or even the nominations but he was, in my book, one of the best character actors of the seventies. He excels as the sleazy Birdwell and when he offers bribes in the form of stolen goods, rather than the money made from them, it makes perfect sense. He’d rather play the salesman than deal it straight, make the customer think they’re getting a bargain instead of a lemon. Even in bribery, the man is out to make a sale.
Birdwell also has a wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is involved in the scheming, double-crossing and plotting as much as, if not more so, than her husband. Interestingly, while ostensibly being the femme fatale of the movie, her part is small and purposely upstaged by the nice girl, Margo, throughout. Cassidy is good but Tomlin steals the show.
The real story of The Late Show is how well Carney and Tomlin work together. Carney won Best Actor just three years prior for his role in Harry and Tonto but he’s even better here. Tomlin starts off a little shaky but becomes increasingly affecting as the movie progresses until, finally, she seems like the perfect match for Ira. And in the end, she portrays a vulnerability that equals her work in Nashville, for which she was nominated, without missing a beat. Robert Benton, the writer and director, would win big time at the Oscars two years later for Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie I very much like, but I’ll take this one over it any day of the week.
The Late Show proved that a good private dick story doesn’t depend on plot but characters, plain and simple. And knowing how to end your story. The last shot of the movie seems to understand, and expect that the audience understands, the genre and its origins in classic Hollywood and, in a small way, pays tribute to it. I suppose we could have had sequels, if anyone had cared, but that would have ruined the idea. This was a one time deal with Ira and Margo and in the final scene, as they sit together, nowhere to go, and allude to the possibility of more, we know it’s over. The late show will come to an end, as it always does, the station will sign off and Ira will gently fade away. And it’s a loss, a great loss, for we won’t soon see the likes of him again.
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